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Prehistoric Cork Harbour

Wednesday, 22nd May, 2019 4:23pm

My new book ‘The Little Book of Cork Harbour’ has recently been published by The History Press (2019).

Following on from last week, below is another snippet from the book– focussing on some aspects of the prehistoric human activity in the harbour.

The Mesolithic Harbour

About ten thousand years ago, the first human settlers, hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic or Late Stone Age era came to Cork Harbour.

Just over 25 shell midden sites are marked on maps created by the archaeological inventory of Cork Harbour – some of these have not survived; some survive just in local folklore. Some have been excavated throughout the twentieth century.

There have also been unrecorded sites eroded away by the tide or by cliff collapse. Shell midden sites consist of refuse mounds or spreads of discarded sea-shells and are normally found along the shoreline.

Shellfish were exploited as a food source and sometimes as bait or to make dye. In Ireland shell middens survive from as early as the Late Mesolithic period but many of the Cork Harbour oyster middens have also been dated to medieval times while some have produced post-medieval pottery dates.

Over a quarter of all identified middens in the Cork Harbour area are to be found at eight locations in Carrigtwohill parish. When surveyed by the archaeologist Reverend Professor Power in 1930, a midden on Brick lsland (in the estuary to the north of Great Island, joined to mainland by narrow neck of land) measured five or six feet thick at the terraced shore edge and extended along the foreshore for over one hundred and eighty yards and inland for seventy or eighty feet.

It contained nearly pure oyster shells with occasional cockle, mussel, whelk and other marine shells. Thin layers of charcoal were visible in many places and stone pounders or shell openers visible in many places.

In 2001, archaeological monitoring of a 15 hectare greenfield site at Carrigrenan, Little Island, was carried out prior to the construction of a waste water treatment plant by Cork Corporation.

Two shell spreads along the western seashore perimeter of the site were noted. A polished stone axe was recovered during topsoil monitoring and has been given a possible late Mesolithic date. All other finds were random pottery, eighteenth to twentieth century in date.

Smaller middens for example at Curraghbinny, Currabally and Rathcoursey reflect shorter periods of use.

At the western end of Carrigtwohill in 1955, archaeologist MJ O’Kelly, prior to the construction of a new school, excavated oyster shells, few animal bones and fragments of glazed pottery dating to late thirteenth century/early fourteenth century.

The mystery of the Rostellan dolmen

Described as enigmatic by Cork archaeologists, the dolmen in Rostellan in eastern Cork Harbour is similar to portal tombs but here cannot be confidently identified as such.

The monument has three upright stones and a capstone, which at one time fell down but was later re-positioned. The site gets flooded at high tides and is difficult to get to across the local mudflats.

It is easier to get to it with a guide through the adjacent Rostellan wood. The wood was created as part of the former estate of Rostellan House.

The house was built by William O’Brien (1694-1777) the fourth Earl of Inchiquin in 1721. The dolmen could be a folly on the estate. There is a folly in the shape of a castle tower, named Siddons Tower, after the Welsh-born actress Sarah Siddons, nearby.

The Giant’s Circle

The name Curraghbinny in Irish is ‘Corra Binne’, which is reputedly named after the legendary giant called Binne. Legends tells that his cairn (called a corra in Irish) is located in a burial chamber atop the now wooded hill.

The cairn is not marked in the first edition Ordnance Survey map, but its existence was noted during the original survey in the Name Books compiled at that time.

John Windle, the well-known Cork writer and antiquarian of the early nineteenth century, mentions the site in his publications. There is no record though in his printed works or in his manuscripts preserved in the Royal Irish Academy Library of any digging having taken place at the cairn.

In 1932 archaeologist Seán P Ó Riordáin and his team excavated the 70 feet in diameter cairn (with its greatest height being 7 ½ feet).

On one flat stone forming part of the inner arc they found a group of about one hundred pebbles, water-rolled, and such as would come from a brook, while a second group of about sixty pebbles was found just north of the western end of the arc.

At the centre of the mound they came upon a peculiar structure of stones and clay. The clay was raised to a height of about 4 inches above the surrounding surface, and the stones were embedded in it.

The most interesting discovery was made on the south side of the cairn. In a space between two stones of the kerb and a third lying just inside the team found, mixed with a thick layer of charcoal, some burnt bone fragments.

Examination proved these to be human. The charcoal deposit with which the bones were found mixed did not extend under the neighbouring large stones. This showed that the fire was lit after the boulders had been placed in position.

The cremated human bone found nearby was carbon dated roughly to be 4,000 years old. A small bronze ring, about five-eighths of an inch in diameter, was found outside the kerb on the south-east side.

‘The Little Book of Cork Harbour’ (2019) by Kieran McCarthy is published by The History Press and is available in Waterstones, Vibes and Scribes and Easons.

Next Walking Tour:

Sunday 9 June, Stories from Cork Docklands. Historical walking tour with Kieran; meet at Kennedy Park, Victoria Road at 2pm. It’s free, duration is two hours and it’s part of the Cork Harbour Festival and Sea Fest, finishes nearby.

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